The Sad Story of Lao Bejing
Tony Hu's restaurants are well respected. Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Shanghai, Lao Hunan, Lao Bejing and the new one Lao You Ju. I have always enjoyed them. Never had a problem.
Until yesterday when our family ate what may have been the worst meal we've ever had anywhere - at Lao Bejing.
I know it was Christmas. They were busy but not slammed. It was relatively early. We had a reservation, but there were tables available.
First problem: our waitress didn't speak English. Couldn't answer any questions. Barely understood our order when we pointed at the menu item.
We waited almost a half-hour for anything to be served. What came were three entrees - no soup; no appetizers.
They ran out of proper forks and handed us plastic forks when someone at our table requested one.
Someone told us they ran out of hot and sour soup.
About 10 minutes later came an appetizer and another entree.
About 10 minutes later another entree and another appetizer.
And all the food was oily.
The waitress spilled beer on me and didn't replace it or attempt to clean it up.
They attempted to remake the soup, but when it came - at the end of the meal - it was tasteless (it takes more than 30 minutes to make soup properly) and gelatinous due to the amount of corn starch thickening it.
Is the Tony group of restaurants overextended? Was it a fluke? Just an unfortunate one-time glitch? Anyone else had problems?
As it happens, we went to Lao Beijing yesterday, too, and unfortunately, our experience was similar to yours.
Because we had fewer than six people (four of us), we were unable to make a reservation in advance. When we arrived around 4 pm, there were several parties ahead of us waiting. They were quickly seated. They then asked us if we were willing to share a table upstairs, and we said yes. As it turned out, sharing the table was not a problem. Eating upstairs probably was.
After we were seated, we waited almost half an hour before anyone paid attention to us and took our orders. There were two servers who were absolutely clueless and overwhelmed, quite aside from an obvious language barrier. Never got slaw, never got sauces with dishes that they normally accompany, were served our appetizers after the main courses, asked for things like water and never received them, etc. Once we got our food, it was generally good, although much of it was extremely greasy (not only the usual stir-fry items, but even other dishes like Tony's pot stickers). Sounds familiar, huh?
So the question is whether the experience is typical of all of Tony's restaurants at any time, or unique to Christmas and/or unique to Lao Beijing. This was our first time at Lao Beijing, but we've been to Lao Sze Chuan several times, not on holidays. *Some* of what happened is similar to our experiences there. The servers at LSC are generally not very helpful (e.g. not able to provide advice on dishes to order) and many cannot communicate well in English. (This contrasts with Double Li, where chef-owner Ben Li works the room and is very helpful with suggestions etc.) And the food tends to be greasy at Lao Sze Chuan, too.
However, I suspect that the severe service screw-ups were related to the amount of business on Christmas, and specifically to eating upstairs, away from the eyes of those in charge. Downstairs is mostly tables for 2-4, with only one round in the middle of the room seating more than that. Upstairs is entirely rounds that can each seat up to 10. (I'm guessing that chicgail may also have been seated upstairs, since she had a reservation which they only take for groups of 6+. Yes?) We observed the party ahead of us getting seated downstairs and immediately being presented with spicy cabbage slaw, which we never saw upstairs. It was clearly the server "B team" serving upstairs, servers who could not prioritize or handle simple requests or even pay attention to the customers. Anyone sitting in that room would have observed how many things were going wrong, and I'm just guessing but I suspect such at atmosphere would not have been tolerated on the ground floor.
It's also worth noting that people flooding Chinatown on Christmas is not a new phenomenon, and would already be well-known to every restaurant there. One would expect them to make appropriate preparations in advance.
So, to answer your question, I think some of the problems we experienced - the greasy food, the inexperienced servers with language barriers - are common at Tony's restaurants. But other problems - the long waits, the inability to respond to simple requests, the courses served out of order - were probably related to the flood of customers on Christmas, and might not happen on other days. Still, it's the restaurant's responsibility to be prepared for a day they know they will be busy, and Lao Beijing failed that responsibility miserably.
I doubt we'll be going back to any of Tony's restaurants. When we want Szechuan, Double Li has been a more reliable choice.
2138 S Archer Ave, Chicago, IL 60616
On the Chinese food subject, I was wondering what you like in particular at Double Li ? I have been there a few time and have enjoyed it but I never know what to get that would be considered authentic and the staff hasnt been able to communicate too well to me. We ordered a garlic pork dish that was out of this world but i would like your suggestions.
It's been a little while since we've been, but the dish I remember the most was a chicken dish with chilis, similar to the dry chili chicken at LSC but not as greasy and, while it had chilis, nowhere near as many as the dish at LSC (which has more chilis than any other dish I've ever seen, anywhere).
I ordered take-out from Lao Sze Chuan a few months ago, and it was bad enough that I wouldn't bother trying any of their other places. I had heard great things about it, so I was really shocked that as you experienced at Lao Beijing, everything was incredibly oily and I thought the quality of the meat and vegetables was really awful- we threw it all away.
However- last night we also wanted to go out for Chinese, so after lots of research decided on a place called Go 4 Food on 23rd St just off Wentworth. I know the name sounds completely ridiculous, but it was absolutely the best Chinese meal we have ever had. It is Cantonese-style, so stick with mainly seafood, and I don't think you could go wrong. We had the Oysters with ginger and green onion, and the clams in Chinese wine- both fantastic. The popular French Style beef was great too as was the chicken-fried rice. Service was professional and although the restaurant is small, it's not uncomfortably so. I think it's usually crowded, so I'd recommend calling ahead for reservations. Oh and it's BYO too!
Go 4 Food
212 W 23rd St, Chicago, IL 60616